Cleaning my dog's teeth: The importance of dental hygiene to my dog’s overall health

a border collie having its teeth brushed. Caring for your dog's teeth is essential
Are you cleaning your dog’s teeth?

Getting your dog's teeth cleaned is one of the most overlooked aspects of our pets' health. Often, pet parents ignore the problem too long, resulting in a need for a vet dental cleaning under anesthetic.

Not only are there dangers to relying on an anesthetic to clean your pet's teeth, but by that stage, damage can already be done to your dog or cats' vital organs.

Prevention is always better than cure. But how much does pet dental cleaning cost? Is it necessary? How can you get plaque off your dog's teeth? And how often we have a dog or cat’s teeth deep-cleaned? To answer these questions, we will look at what science says about pet oral hygiene.

Why should I clean my dog’s teeth? | Consequences of bad pet dental care

an example of a perfect set of dog's teeth
Not keeping your dog’s teeth in good condition can lead to severe health problems

Never cleaning your dog or cat's teeth can lead to various severe health concerns. These include:

  1. Periodontal disease, which includes bleeding gums, tooth loss, and bad breath.
  2. A broken jaw as the supporting tissue beneath the teeth decays.
  3. Diabetes.
  4. Heart disease
  5. Liver disease

In short, periodontal disease starts with bacterial plaque gathering under the gumline. Plaque activates the feline and canine immune system and inflammatory response. This results in gingivitis.

The danger of inflammation in a dog’s mouth

The inflammation caused by the bacteria kills both the bacteria and the soft tissue underneath the teeth. So the body's own immune response causes tissue decay.

If the inflammation is bad enough, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream. They may then travel to other parts of the body.

Once carried to other parts of the body, the heart and the liver are particularly vulnerable to infection. In fact, dogs with moderate to severe periodontitis are six times more likely to develop a type of heart disease called endocarditis.

There is also a solid link between bad teeth and diabetes in dogs. The inflammation caused by periodontal disease affects the blood glucose regulation in the dog. Although it's hard to say whether gum disease or diabetes comes first. They definitely exacerbate each other.

Furthermore, infection and inflammation reduce the dog's sensitivity to insulin. Thus, gum disease and diabetes in dogs become deeply entangled problems.

These are far from the only terrible things that can happen if you don't take care of your pet's teeth. The size of the teeth in small dogs, relative to their jaws can lead to so much underlying decay that their jaws become fragile and are liable to breaking.

But if dental care is such a critical part of our pets' health, why do we so often overlook it?

Why is dental cleaning overlooked?

There is no mistaking that dental disease is one of the most common issues that affect our pets. However, but it is also one of the most ignored. Studies show that 80 – 89 % of dogs over three years old are not diagnosed and not treated for the problem.

But why is this?

For one thing, complete animal care is relatively new. A century ago, dogs and cats were fed scraps from the table. It was not common practice to think of routine care procedures usually reserved for humans. This can include trimming their nails, cleaning their teeth, or checking their ears for signs of infection.

Why caring for our dog’s teeth has become important

  • Bad oral health is a problem of domestication, not the wild. And, as humans have started to eat more processed foods, so have our dogs. While this led to a boom in the human dental care industry over the past century, it has taken longer for us to realize that our dogs might need the same care for the same reasons.
  • The science of pet care and neglecting our pet's teeth is relatively recent. So we are only now beginning to understand the problem.
  • Due to advances in medical technology, our pets live longer, giving more time for dental issues to set in.
  • More than ever, our dogs and cats are becoming family members. Now Pet parents show the same level of concern for their pets as they would for a human. Marketers call this the "humanization trend" that shapes the consumer behavior of pet owners. This trend can manipulate pet owners into buying unnecessarily expensive food. But it can also make pet owners more aware of basic routine care fundamentals that simply did not exist 50 years ago.

The most important point is that we can manage our dog’s dental health. As with most conditions, the focus should always be on prevention rather than cure.

How to keep my dog's teeth clean:

Luckily for us pet lovers and owners, there are plenty of ways to keep our pets' teeth sparkly and white. Some are more controversial than others. But we will look at what science has to say about each of them in turn.

1. Raw Bones

Raw bones can help remove dental calculus from your pet's teeth
Advocates of the raw diet will feed their dogs large meaty bones

Bones are part of the heated debate surrounding raw and home-cooked meals versus store-bought pet food. Some of the arguments against raw bones include:

  • Bones, especially poultry bones such as chicken or turkey, can splinter and damage a dog's intestinal tract
  • Hard bones may cause a dog or cat's teeth to crack or chip
  • Swallowed bones can be a choking hazard, or,
  • May cause intestinal blockage.

These are valid concerns, and bones should be treated with caution. But, a study on beagles who were given sizeable raw beef bones found that chewing bones:

  • Reduced dental calculus by 35.5% after three days
  • By 70.6% after 12 days

Another study also shows dental calculus is reduced by:

  • 56.5% after 3 days
  • 81.6% after 12 days
  • And 87.8% after 20 days.

Neither study discovered any complications and bones with marrow or "spongy" bones were the most effective.

To avoid complications, an owner can feed their dog hard beef bones that are too large to swallow and simply remove the bone once it has been gnawed down to the point that it poses a choking hazard.

Chewies, rawhide, and chew toys

a chihuahua gnawing on a rawhide bone
Chewies can also offer a supportive role in good dental health

For those owners who are still skeptical of raw bones for their dogs and cats, there are various other choices on the market that can help tackle plaque and calculus on your pet's teeth.

Studies show that even rawhide makes a statistical difference on your dog's teeth. Beagles given a daily rawhide chew showed a:

  • 28% reduction in dental calculus
  • 19% reduction in plaque
  • And, 46% reduction in gingivitis.

Some studies show the many dental chews on the market do have a positive effect. One dental chew designed for toy breeds was made for maximum contact with teeth. It contained active ingredients such as vitamin C, zinc sulfate, and pyrophosphate. This study showed that Chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers who received one chew per day had a reduction of:

  • 20% in gingivitis
  • 35% reduction in plaque
  • And, 19% in dental calculus

In general, research shows that any amount of mechanical chewing reduces plaque and calculus in dogs and cats. Therefore, chewing appropriate objects such as safe chew toys is also beneficial for dental health. However, you may have noticed that dental chews and rawhide results are not as impressive as those for raw bones.

Still, since pet parents are still nervous about raw bones, chewies, rawhides, and other items that encourage chewing can be seen as part of preventative care, but not necessarily the whole package. For this, we need to look at products like special canine toothpaste, mouth wash, and toothpaste.

Doggy toothpaste and toothbrush

A terrier having its teeth brushed
A terrier having its teeth brushed

Daily toothbrushing with a pet-specific toothbrush and paste is currently pushed as the most effective way of combating dental disease. Never use ones made for humans! However, how does it score against raw bones?

One study, also conducted on Beagles, tested the efficacy of daily toothbrushing after 29 days. They found that when dog’s teeth were brushed daily:

  • Their mean plaque score was 37% lower than the control group.
  • The mean dental calculus score was 80% lower than the control group.
  • The gingivitis score was 62% lower.

Unfortunately, the raw bone study only measured dental calculus, rather than plaque and gingivitis. But the numbers do start painting an interesting picture on the most effective way of taking care of our pet's teeth.

Doggie mouthwash

Another product that is becoming increasingly common is different forms of pet mouthwashes or rinses. Pet parents can place some in water bowls and they claim to clean teeth every time our dog or cat drinks.

The science on these products isn't as straightforward as it is with toothbrushing and chewies.

Some seem to contain the ingredients xylitol and chlorhexidine, and vets warn that these may be dangerous to your pets. Xylitol is toxic to dogs. It leads to a rapid increase in insulin, followed by acute low blood pressure and possibly fatal medical complications.

However, the amount of xylitol in these products shouldn't be enough to cause your dog problems unless they somehow manage to drink the bottle. Nevertheless, with the proven results from toothbrushing and chewies, it may be best to stay on the safer side.

Having the vet clean your dog’s teeth

a dog under anesthetic with some dental plaque build up
Having teeth cleaned under anesthetic may be necessary, but does come with risks

Recently, certain companies have made claims that they can clean your dog's teeth without anesthesia. Vet's push back against this, saying that high-quality dental care without anesthesia is simply impossible.

Just the radiographs needed to diagnose a painful tooth need a pet to hold still long enough. Thorough cleaning is also a long and detailed process that can take between 45 minutes and an hour. Very few dogs or cats will hold still long enough for that!

Cleaning your pet's teeth is also expensive. It usually costs between $500 and $900, so pet insurance should be considered before this problem crops up.

So since anesthesia will never be risk-free, and the cost of thorough dental cleaning is eye-watering, the best route is consistent, preventative care through brushing and chewies.

This does not mean that your dog will never need the vet to scale teeth or extract a tooth, but it will limit how often and how much they will need to. Plus, preventative care affects other parts of your pet's health, such as their organs.

How often do I clean my dog's teeth?

The research shows that the best we can do for our dogs and cats is brush their teeth daily, or even every second day. Owners should supplement this with appropriate dental chews, rawhides, or chew toys.

Those owners feeding their dogs a raw or home-cooked diet and are comfortable with feeding bones can give them two to three times a week. The bones should be too hard to splinter and too big to swallow. Owners should also remove them once the dog has ground them down to a small enough size to swallow.

Vets should examine your dog and cat's teeth at least once a year to check for any issues. If dental care has been neglected or if a tooth has cracked, your vet may need to remove or clean the teeth while your dog is under anesthetic. This cannot always be avoided, but if pet parents implement a good daily dental hygiene program with your dog or cat, the need can be minimized.

Key takeaways

Cleaning a dog's teeth is critical to their overall health. While we have overlooked dental care in the past, vets and owners increasingly realize that oral hygiene should form a daily part of routine care for our pets.

In general, we should encourage our dogs to chew anything appropriate, as the mechanical action breaks down dental calculus and inhibits plaque. Large, hard, raw bones are pretty effective in this, but some vets dislike them, citing possible hazards.

On the other hand, relying on regular anesthesia in a vet visit should be avoided. The best we can do for our dogs and cats is to brush their teeth daily, or at least every second day, and supplement the brushing with appropriate chew toys.